Inching toward Compromise in the Middle East

I was gliding along the Massachusetts Turnpike, enjoying a summer Sunday in the Berkshires, thinking I was on vacation, when I got an urgent cell phone call from a news anchor at one of the nation’s most progressive radio stations. “Will you comment on today’s news from Israel?” he asked.

“What news?” I was on vacation from the world and its problems.
“The Israelis have just announced that they will expand some settlements,” he explained breathlessly, with obvious pain in his voice. “They’re just ignoring Obama’s demands completely.”

Realizing that a thoughtful interview at 70 miles an hour might endanger myself and the cars around me, I told him I’d pull over and call him back at the next roadside rest stop. By the time I got there, I understood more clearly why I didn’t really share his outrage.

Of course in principle, Israel should cease expanding its settlements in the Occupied Territory. In fact, Israel should dismantle all the settlements: They’re illegal under international law. That the settlements exist at all is reason enough to be outraged.

But there’s no reason to be especially upset at this latest Israeli announcement, or announcements like it that will continue to emerge. They don’t represent any final rejection of the Obama administration’s peace moves. They’re just part of the public posturing that goes on nearly every day, by Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike, using words as weapons in the continuing struggle for power.

Behind the Scenes

These words are merely the few visible maneuvers in a very complex negotiation process that’s playing out mostly behind the scenes. Only a handful of people can see the most important moves. Not even Obama’s envoy George Mitchell can likely see the whole playing field at once. Yet, according to what top Israeli and Palestinian officials are saying, much is going on behind the scenes, spurred by the Obama administration’s apparently sincere efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (now clearly the number two-man in his government, as a corruption scandal further marginalizes Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman) recently told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the United States would present a regional peace plan “in the coming weeks” and that “Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan.”

Unnamed Palestinian Authority officials were more specific. They said that the United States will set a timetable of about a year and a half for the negotiations and demand that the sides first solve the border issue, under the belief that this will lead to solutions for other issues, such as the settlements and water. After that, the sides will discuss the other fundamental issues — Jerusalem and the refugees.

Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have denied these reports. Both sides are creating an air of urgency. Recognizing that Washington will attempt to force compromise, each wants the other to make the first move. The Palestinian claim that borders will be at the top of the agenda, for instance, may well be intended to pressure the Israelis to give in on the settlement expansion issue, since the question of borders quickly leads to the question of which settlements the Israelis can keep and which they must abandon.

There has been only one denial of an impending U.S. peace plan, and that came (though unofficially) from the superpower itself. Unnamed “U.S. sources” told the newspaper al-Hayat that speculations about a nearing peace summit are premature. “The White House wants to focus on three aspects,” the sources said. “Having Israel halt settlement expansion, seeing the Palestinian Authority advance security issues and ensuring some overtures by the Arab nations.”

But these same sources did acknowledge that Mitchell “has reported a breakthrough after his last visit to the region, adding that the administration has reason to be ‘cautiously optimistic’ as to the prospects of reigniting bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” The White House is apparently doing its own posturing to signal that Mitchell is making some real progress.

Using The New York Times, the administration announced that it will soon “begin a public-relations campaign in Israel and Arab countries to better explain Mr. Obama’s plans for a comprehensive peace agreement involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world…a reframing of a policy that people inside and outside the administration say has become overly defined by the American pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction on the West Bank.”

More Maneuvering

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are pushing the United States to offer its peace plan quickly. The Obama administration is responding by putting on the brakes, though only gently. That would dampen excessively high expectations, preparing the public for the possibility that Obama’s initiative may be delayed.

At the same time, Washington is sending a message to the parties who will be at the negotiating table: All of you had better make compromises now — and they’d better be the specific ones the administration is calling for — precisely because Uncle Sam will be flexing his muscle soon by laying down at least the general parameters, if not the specific terms, of a regional peace deal.

Contrary to what the news anchor believed, Israel is not free to flaunt U.S. pressure. Here are some indications of Israeli deference. In early July, a senior Israeli official said that Israel hasn’t asked for U.S. permission to attack Iran because the Netanyahu government doesn’t want to risk being told “no.” And in early August, Barak told Israel radio that Israel restrained its attack on Lebanon in 2006 because “a message from the United States indicated we must spare Lebanon’s infrastructure.”

In other words, when the U.S. government gives an order and really means it, the Israeli government has obeyed and will obey. Israel won’t bite the hand that feeds it several billion dollars a year. As Israeli journalist Amir Oren recently wrote, his country’s leaders have no choice but to heed “our master’s voice.” (Barak’s insistence that Israel would not let itself be restrained again, in another war against Lebanon, was simply more public posturing, though this time probably for domestic politics. With Netanyahu’s popularity falling, Barak uses tough talk to curry favor with the right and position himself the heir to the throne.)

The Israelis know who is in charge. That’s why, despite their bluster and posturing, they’ve accepted the inevitable curb on settlement expansion. Now the argument is merely about how long Israel must promise to maintain that curb. Mitchell has told Netanyahu and Barak that the United States wants a commitment of a one-year freeze. Israel has agreed to suspend building on the settlements for only six months, at most. Israel wants to force the United States to compromise at less than a year to create a psychological advantage when the really tough bargaining begins.

Of course the Palestinians are playing the same game of looking tough. While clearly accepting a two-state solution and thus implicitly recognizing the existence of Israel, Fatah also pledged to “continue to sacrifice victims until Jerusalem will be returned [to the Palestinians], clean of settlements and settlers.” Fatah leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Nabil Shaath emphasized that, though they prefer a nonviolent solution, even their supposedly moderate faction reserves the right to resume armed struggle at any time.

But Fatah’s gesture may backfire. Israeli commentator Israel Harel, for one, thinks that Netanyahu allowed Fatah to hold its convention precisely because he wanted the world to see the purported partners for peace “bare their teeth. His real goal is to highlight that even the Palestinians’ most moderate wing is characterized by inherent aggressiveness.” Israel thus underscores that it has “no partner for peace.” The harsh Israeli public reaction to the Fatah convention shows that Netanyahu’s strategy is working, at least on the domestic front.

Hamas and Iran

All these public words should be seen as weapons in a fierce battle involving many forces, each pursuing its own conflicting interests. Indeed the Obama administration — which is obviously promoting what is sees as U.S. interests — might have no chance of herding these cats to a single negotiating table, were it not for the one interest all have in common: containing and diminishing the power of Hamas and ultimately its supposed sponsor, Iran.

To achieve that goal, Hamas will be shut out of the peace process by common consent. In the United States, the mainstream media aid that project by continuing to state — as if it were fact — the fiction that Hamas has no interest in joining the process.

This freezing out of Hamas leaves the negotiating parties with two options. They can hammer out an agreement that includes both the West Bank and Gaza in the new Palestinian state, and then hope Abbas can sell it to his people over the objections of Hamas. Or they can declare the West Bank alone as the new Palestinian state and postpone the question of what to do with Gaza.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman now opts for the latter course. Urging “quicker negotiations on the contours of a Palestinian state in the West Bank,” he adds: “Hamas and Gaza can join later. Don’t wait for them. If we build it, they will come.” “It” is a Palestinian state firmly cemented in the hoped-for pan-Arab, pro-American, anti-Iranian coalition. Even such a grudging openness to Hamas, coming from this bellwether of mainstream liberal opinion, is a surprising new development.

But Hamas is unlikely to bend to America’s will. Excluding Hamas until it bends is a course fraught with danger. The democratically elected ruling party of the Palestinians in Gaza still holds plenty of political power; how much, no one knows for sure. If Fatah agrees to a peace deal largely on American-Israeli terms, a rejectionist Hamas may well increase its popularity enough to render the whole process fruitless.

If the Obama administration truly wants a stable, peaceful Middle East, it should stop using the peace process as an anti-Iranian gambit. It must give Hamas the place it deserves at the negotiating table — now.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog.